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Beyond the Fight for Safe Schools

With just days before schools reopen across Ontario, school boards, education workers, parents and students still find themselves with more questions than answers — scrambling to put together plans for a safe return.

Board after board reformulate their plans, to then have them rejected by the Ontario government, and re-adjusted to only have the Minister of Education send out more new, confusing directives. Concerned parents, in Ontario, have flooded the voicemail of Minister Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford, and built massive petition campaigns. And in astounding numbers, those with resources [financial and otherwise] are opting out of returning to school by hiring private educators, thinking it’s the only way to ensure the safety and health of their children and family members. 

It didn’t need to be this way. 

Ever since schools shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March, the need to find a safe path to return our students to schools has been paramount. After months of the government showing no progress on a plan and no meaningful collaboration with frontline education workers or education experts, as the Official Opposition Education Critic, I introduced a motion outlining an action plan for a safe September. That plan sought a comprehensive approach to helping children and their families return to school, including; guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers so parents could stay home with sick or symptomatic kids; hiring thousands of more teachers and other education workers to allow for more, smaller classes; immediate and meaningful investment in school repairs and upgrades such as ventilation, touch-free sinks; more funding for school busses; more support for students with special needs, and a plan to address the disproportionate impact of COVID19 on racialized and low-income communities, among other recommendations. So far, few of these proposals have been addressed, and what money has been put forward will barely make a dent in the rising costs facing cash-strapped school boards.

So why won’t Ford put up the money to ensure smaller, safer classes? We only need to cast our thoughts back to a year ago, as parents, students and education workers joined forces to push back against Ford’s attempt to cut 10,000 teachers, inflate class sizes and introduce 4 mandatory on-line courses in high schools. Under the guise of ‘modernizing’ education and ‘building resilience’ among students, the Ford Conservatives’ have been engaged in the troubling trend of deep cuts to education since the beginning.  And here we are. The Ford government has found money to cover so many things. $25 million to hire more police, and hundreds of millions invested in the private sector for job creation. But not what’s needed to protect the quality of public education. 

But the mounting public pressure is having an effect. Ford and Minister Lecce have been forced daily to face the inadequacies of their plan. Their attempts to show they’re willing to do more have been for the most part hollow. The government’s recent announcement to allow Boards to access their “reserve funds” [money dedicated to high priority initiatives], despite there being little to no money there for many of these boards to even access, is infuriating. And if there were some reserves for benefits and liabilities, the government has announced no reimbursement plan to avoid depletion of these emergency funds.  

“Advocacy for smaller classes goes beyond the fight for safe schools, it’s about fighting for what Ontario’s education system could look like going forward.”

Ford’s steadfast resistance to funding safer, smaller classes in the face of the evidence raises serious questions about what their long-term plans are for our school system. How else to explain their focus on “parent choice’ in the return to schools, when they know too many have no choice at all. By sitting back and allowing the system to crack and fold in on itself, Ford and his Conservatives are creating an Ontario where the ‘haves’ choose private options ultimately subsidized by the government and “have nots” settle for a system seriously undermined by public confidence, starved of funding. Betsy de Vos would be proud.

The fight for smaller, safer classes continues. We can and will force the government to reduce class sizes and invest in protection for our students and staff. But have no doubt: this is about more than pandemic protection, it’s about the very future of public education. Our fight is the fight for our future.

Marit Stiles is the Member of Provincial Parliament for Davenport, the Education Critic for Ontario’s Official Opposition, a former Toronto District School Board Trustee and a proud parent of two public school-educated children.

Those with young and school-aged children are caught in an anxiety-inducing parent trap. Parents are having sleepless nights fearing for their jobs while also being worried about the health and well-being of their kids. But we argue that it shouldn’t be this way. Solving the Parent Trap is a policy series on transforming childcare and education featuring ideas from Janet Davis, Nigel Barriffe, Marit Stiles, Beyhan Fahardi, Maria Dobrinskaya and is edited by Katrina Miller and Brittany Andrew-Amofah.